Solo: A Lesson in Needing Diversity Behind the Camera

Thandie Newton is Val in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Solo was a film that I never thought to ask for, but went in hoping for a fun summer popcorn movie. After the heaviness of both Rogue One and The Last Jedi, I was ready for a more lighthearted film with lower stakes that weren’t about the fate of the entire galaxy. And for the most part I got exactly that; it was fun, there was good cast chemistry, and it added to the world of the Star Wars franchise without trying to outdo the films and stories that came before it. But though I had a smile on my face for most of the movie, I cannot truly say that I loved it. Because it was also a movie that sharply reminded me that people like myself are generally not the ones making creative decisions in this franchise.

Solo, like so many Star Wars works that came before it, is one that was so clearly (painfully clearly) written by men. The treatment of two of the female characters in particular show the blindspots that come when you’ve never had to think about what representation means to you on a personal level. That doesn’t make it an irredeemably bad movie, or make them bad people, but it shows the limitations that result when you are used to seeing yourself, day in and day out, on screen and behind the scenes and don’t understand how much it means to finally have a character who looks and acts like you. And it’s for that reason that I cannot say that I love this movie. Like with many things in pop culture, it’s one that I like…with reservations.

And with Solo, that reservation is: this movie really let down its women.

Several large spoilers below, proceed at your own risk

First: Val. Val is the second woman of color who is visibly nonwhite (i.e. not made up to look like an alien) to have a major role in a Star Wars movie and the first black woman. She’s introduced as Beckett’s right hand woman (and lover), insanely competent in a firefight…and then fridged in the first third of the movie when the train heist goes awry.

I even hesitate to say whether Val was fridged, because fridging at least implies her death is used as motivation for male characters; in Solo, Beckett barely even mourns her before squaring up to move on to the next job. The meaninglessness of it is the most infuriating; Val essentially exists to add an extra bit of drama to the mission and doesn’t matter as a character beyond that. She’s not mentioned or referred to ever again. It’s a waste of Thandie Newton’s talents and a huge disservice to the character, especially considering that Star Wars is full of daring, near-death escapes. Why not give Val that same consideration? If nothing else, it would’ve added some additional emotional weight to Beckett’s betrayal at the end if she had been there.

Or heck, even have her be the one to take on the mentor figure role for Han! Tobias Beckett is basically a stock Woody Harrelson character, and while that happens to be an enjoyable character archetype it is really hard to justify him sticking around and Val dying when we’ve had forty years of Star Wars stories predominantly centered around white men. Giving Val the spotlight as the leader of the heist crew and Han’s mentor would’ve been an incredibly powerful statement to make.

L337

Second: L3-37, Lando’s droid copilot and vocal proponent of droid rights. A new and intriguing take on a droid, especially since the concept of droids as truly sentient but still relegated to second class (or worse) hasn’t truly been explored in the movies before. Unfortunately, most of the characters treat her insistence on droid freedom as a joke or an annoying habit to be endured, and the narrative doesn’t challenge that. Furthermore, after being killed on Kessel, her droid brain is then uploaded into the Falcon in order for Han to utilize her navigation database. While it’s nice to know that L3 lives on via the Falcon, it’s troubling that she’s essentially living in servitude to the pilot of the ship, in direct opposition to her ideals of being fully autonomous and sentient.

Additionally, L3 was the first female-coded droid in a major role in a Star Wars movie, and it’s also troubling that the writers felt the need to include a conversation that basically amounts to “but can the lady robot have sex?” L3 is a girl droid so of course we need to know whether she can have sex, even though in nine other movies we’ve not had anything remotely similar asked of the (numerous) male-coded droids. These movies don’t exist in a vacuum and it’s disheartening that a female character who is groundbreaking in her own way was reduced to her sexual availability.

I have been a fan of Star Wars since I was in preschool so I’m aware that Star Wars’ issues with minorities are nothing new. Both Lucas trilogies only have a single female major character apiece, one of whom dies of a broken heart in perhaps the most infuriating death in the saga. The prequel trilogy does slightly better with including visibly nonwhite men (three recurring roles to the OT’s one) but is undermined by aliens that dance uncomfortably close to racial stereotypes.

lando 2The Disney-era films have fared slightly better but are marred by their own issues. The addition of Finn and Poe as major characters, as well as the male cast of Rogue One, are incredibly welcomed steps forward. And in The Last Jedi we finally got a visibly nonwhite woman as a major character (i.e. got to exist for more than a single scene and wasn’t covered in alien prosthetics or CGI). However, Rogue One has by my count only seven women in a cast of hundreds (and only two of them appear in multiple scenes). Rey’s storyline in The Last Jedi was more about Kylo and Luke than it was about her, and the Holdo/Poe subplot fed into the damaging trope of white women telling PoC to sit down and be quiet (an issue that went unexamined and uncriticized by the narrative itself). And, of course, there has yet to be textually queer characters in any of the Star Wars movies (as in actually showing/describing a character as queer, not just saying so after the fact) though the franchise has no problem casually inserting heterosexuality in nearly every film to date (e.g. Val assuming Han was interested in “a girl” specifically, rather than “someone”).

And while the books and comics (and TV shows, to a certain extent) do a much better job of bringing in diverse voices and creating a rich tapestry of characters, it’s also a fact that Star Wars is a film-first franchise and the movies will always make the biggest impact.

It’s a systemic problem with the franchise, but Solo really throws it into sharp relief. It all comes back to the blindspots that are created as a result of only ever telling stories from the white male perspective. When it’s the only thing you ever get, the blindspots grow more obvious and the problems get harder and harder to ignore.

How would Val’s characterization and presence in Solo been improved if black women had been writing and directing the movie? Would L3’s droid rights campaigning still have been treated like a joke if written by a nonwhite person?

You look at the success of Black Panther, Thor: Ragnorak, and Wonder Woman, and no small part of that comes from the work of Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and Patti Jenkins. They brought their own experiences and their own sensitivities in dealing with representation and made stronger movies because of it. If Star Wars wants to stay relevant then it absolutely needs to give those opportunities to minority filmmakers.

In 2017 Lucasfilm announced that Rian Johnson would be helming his own trilogy of Star Wars films, and then later announced that Dan Benioff and D.B. Weiss would have their own series of films. JJ Abrams was brought in to direct episode IX after Colin Treverrow left, Jon Favreau was announced as showrunner for the yet-untitled live-action Star Wars television show, and Dave Filoni was announced as head of another animated Star Wars series. Rumors swirl around possible Obi-Wan Kenobi and/or Boba Fett movies, both linked to white male directors.

Lucasfilm has got to do better. Instead of paying lip service to diverse hiring behind the camera, they need to actually do it. Start hiring writers and directors who aren’t white men. They’ve missed this opportunity over and over again and out of the four movies that have been released in the Disney era, it’s had negative impacts on at least three of them. I love Star Wars, but I am so tired of having to enjoy it despite its deep-seated issues and its apparent unwillingness to make a change.

6 comments

  1. Ed says:

    I could not agree more. Personally I would go for a Lando: A Star Wars Story movie. Written by Phoebe Waller Bridge and Donald Glover. Directed by Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins and produced by Dave Filoni. Totally unconnected to the rest of the canon, and without any useless fanboy crap and nonsensical cameo’s. And the first scene would be the liberation of L3 out off that damned piece of junk. Since in Last Shot L3 is alive and well in 5 BBY and Solo is timeframed in 13-10 BBY, that should not be to big of a suprise (Last Shot: DJ Older: page 338).

    Ah, and no one of the main cast dies. George Lucas could pull that of through the original trilogy (except for Ben Kenobi returning as force ghost and Joda dying of old age) and I’m personally fed up with the bloodthirst of the Mouse (killing of the entire Rogue One cast was enough for me, thanks).

    Greets, Ed

    A white dude, old enough to have seen Star Wars open in his local cinema who is still wondering how C3-PO survived the battle of Geonosis, headless and all.

  2. Hamiltonianurst says:

    I honestly can’t believe in a movie with multiple private conversations between different women with interesting backgrounds that it still managed to not pass the Bechtel test.

    • But HONESTLY though. I’m just so ???????? at how badly that ball was dropped. And the Bechdel test is like……..the lowest possible standard to meet, too.

      • Hamiltonianurst says:

        One of the (good? bad?) things with more women characters in film actually getting to be characters is that I see more stories I want to actually learn about. Give me L3’s, and how she decided pilot for Lando was her best place to be in a world who treated her autonomy like a joke.

        Give me Kira’s, a woman who pulled herself off of the street, still had feelings for Han, but decided becoming the shadow broker for Maul was how to keep surviving. Don’t just have Kira keep saying that Han can’t imagine the terrible things she’s done- by the end of that movie I wanted to have followed her story instead.

  3. Alabaster Codify says:

    Let’s not burden Star Wars with the responsibility of social change. Let’s not give them undue importance either. They’re not there to represent people.

    Star Wars is escapism. Let’s make the changes in real life, where it matters.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Culture is a means of changing real life, through inspiration and, yes, representation. Leia being a proactive character was a political statement at the time of ANH, and inspired countless women. Han having a black friend in ESB did the same for people of color. Star Wars has always done this, it’s not incompatible with escapism.

%d bloggers like this: